by Richard Wagner
, first performed in Munich on June 10 1865. It tells a story of unfortunate lovers and is based on the ancient Celtic
myth of Tristan and Iseult
Act One finds Isolde on a boat with her handmaid Brangane being shipped from her Irish home to be married to Marke, the king of Cornwall. She’s pretty upset and Brangane doesn’t quite understand why so Isolde reveals the back story. Her betrothed was sent by the king of Ireland to collect tribute from Cornwall. Instead of delivering the tribute, the king’s hero, Tristan slew the Irishman and sent his head back. However, Tristan was injured in the combat and the wound would not heal. It seems Isolde used her magic arts to make her betrothed’s weapon more powerful. Understanding this, Tristan heads across the sea and, disguised, seeks Isolde’s aid as a healer. She works her arts upon him, but in the process realises that he is a mortal enemy of her country. Even as she does so, they look into each other’s eyes and she cannot reveal him. Once he is well, he departs, but returns with his men to take her as a prize to the Cornish king.
Now totally shamed, she tells Brangane to prepare a draught of poison and to insist that Tristan comes to her cabin to seek her forgiveness. Tristan arrives, and the conversation circles around his need for atonement. By now both believing they are about to die, they share the goblet and confess their feelings to each other. Instead, the boat docks in Cornwall. Brangane has swapped the poison for a love potion.
In Act Two, Tristan’s friend Melot arranges a night hunt for the king. Brangane fears this is a trap and tells her mistress to be careful, but Isolde is focused solely on the forthcoming meeting with her beloved. Tristan duly arrives and Brangane is set to watch for the king’s return. Tristan and Isolde then sing long and loud to each other of the pain they suffer at being kept apart by day and how blessed is the night which allows them to be together. They agree that they can only truly be together in death.
Failing to heed Brangane’s warning of the hunters’ return, Tristan and Isolde are caught together by King Marke and Melot. Tristan is horrified that his friend has betrayed him and thereby shown his own betrayal of the king. The king is equally distraught, as Tristan has been declared his heir and is supposed to be the most trustworthy in the realm. On top of this, Marke has treated Isolde only with ‘reverence’. (Of course, the love between Isolde and Tristan has been extremely high minded.) Tristan throws himself upon Melot’s weapon.
Act Three is set in Tristan’s castle in Brittany. His loyal captain, Kurwenal has taken him there yet sent for Isolde in the belief that she will be able to cure him. He orders a shepherd to keep watch and play a happy tune when her ship comes in. As they await the ship’s arrival, Tristan wakes in a delirium and relives his youth - both parents having died at the time of his birth - and his love for Isolde before collapsing. He is awoken once more by the sound of the happy tune, tears the bandages from his wound and dies as Isolde appears.
Hot on the heels of Isolde, King Marke arrives. Brangane has told him of the love potion and he accepts that it was not Tristan’s intent to betray him. However, Kurwenal assumes the worst and kills Melot, mortally wounded in the same moment. Isolde now has the stage to herself, except for Tristan’s body and sings the ‘Liebestod’ before dying to become one with Tristan.
I went to the ENO
on 30 May 2003
to see their production of Tristan and Isolde - in English, as with all ENO opera. It was a hot night in London
. The staging was bizarre.
The first act was in front of stone pillars with a massive brick wall which lifted away to reveal the rear part of the stage set as a plain deck with something vaguely resembling a helmsman’s wheel. Without having read the notes in advance, I would have had no clue that the front part of the stage was meant to be a cabin on a ship. There was a lot of strange backwards walking going on also, mostly by Brangane as attempts to silently demonstrate the shock of what she is hearing. Somehow, all this reminded me of the red room in Twin Peaks. Even so, the density of plot in getting across all this back story and then setting up a death tryst gives the act plenty of kick. As the lovers reveal themselves to each other, King Marke appears and the curtain comes down.
The second act has nowhere near as much life in it. There were a few great moments, though. The second act starts with a lovely little moment where Isolde and Brangane are sitting together listening to the hunters’ horns as they head off into the night. Isolde insists they are gone now and that all she can hear is a stream, or the tree branches whispering, whilst the cautious Brangane can hear the horns as clearly as we can in the audience. Somehow, Isolde has Tristan’s sword and Brangane uses this to extinguish a torch, which is the symbol for him to come. In the process, the sword becomes a great fiery emblem, burning all up the blade, which was a pretty good special effect and must have given Health and Safety kittens. The setting, whilst supposedly Isolde’s chambers, is the same great big brick wall turned to a different angle. It’s all quite dark and moody, befitting the whole ‘night’ theme, though they use some back lighting on the rear of the stage to vary the mood a bit more. Frankly I found the long interlude where Tristan and Isolde duet on how much more pleasant it would be to be dead together quite a pain. The hunting party turn up with a stag and things get moving again.
The third act picked up again, as far as action, but was just as strange on set. The stage is totally cleared with just a chair, a mattress and something resembling part of a wrecked boat. The shepherd sits at the front of the stage for most of the act, after singing his three lines, and eventually wanders off the stage carrying Tristan’s sword after his death. Tristan’s song worked well, as he wandered about the stage tossing the chair about and dragging the mattress to a nice, comfy place to die. Isolde appears and sings her Liebestod but doesn’t keel over as she is supposed to do (‘transfixed by ecstasy’ according to the programme).
Even so, Susan Bullock, who sang Isolde, and Jane Irwin, who was Brangane, did excellent jobs and the rest of the cast were pretty good too. It is a very short season - just 6 performances - but was well worthwhile. It was also my trial by fire for Wagner and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Next year, ENO is doing a full Ring Cycle and on the strength of this showing, I may be up for it!